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Matchups make Vanek Wild's X-factor vs. Blackhawks

by Dan Myers /

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks are not strangers when it comes to Stanley Cup Playoff hockey.

Wild forward Thomas Vanek, however, is new to the matchup, and could be a difference-maker.

For the third consecutive season, the Central Division rivals will play in the postseason, this time in the Western Conference Second Round for the second consecutive year.

Game 1 is Friday at United Center in Chicago (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports).

Over the course of these series, little has changed with Chicago. Captain Jonathan Toews and forward Patrick Kane remain among the best players in the NHL. Forwards Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad play terrific support roles up front. Defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook log big minutes on the back end.

But for the first time, the Wild feel they have the depth to compete with the Blackhawks, especially up front.

The Toews line typically has gone against Zach Parise's line and generally they have neutralized each other. This time the Wild's second line, centered by Mikko Koivu, may be in charge of shadowing Kane's line group.

That leaves Minnesota's third line, led by Vanek, with an opportunity.

"There's going to be more chances," Vanek said. "I think against St. Louis the focus for our line wasn't to be creative; we needed to be good defensively. We played a lot against the [Jori] Lehtera, [Paul] Stastny lines and make it hard on them.

"Chicago is different. They have four lines that can score and they can create. I think creating is going to be more of a premium this round."

Vanek, who signed with Minnesota as a free agent this offseason, has done a solid job creating most of the season. Though his goal-scoring was down, he has done a good job of trying to get his linemates more involved in the offense. His center for much of the second half of the season, Charlie Coyle, had his best offensive season in the NHL with 11 goals and 24 assists.

"I thought Charlie and I were, for the most part, pretty solid [against St. Louis]," Vanek said. "I don't think we got the bounces to score a big goal. But overall I thought our line played a good role. Sometimes you don't get the points and you think the series wasn't great. But overall the lines we were matched up against we did a pretty good job."

Coyle scored the final goal of a 4-1 win in St. Louis in Game 5 on a play when Vanek won a puck battle and passed it to Coyle in the slot. Vanek and Coyle had the assists on Marco Scandella's goal in Game 2.

Wild coach Mike Yeo said he feels Vanek could be a much bigger factor against the Blackhawks.

"He played well against them this year," Yeo said. "As I look at the video, he was a factor offensively and that's what we’re going to need from him again. It might be a different guy every night and there's some tough matchups, for sure. But we think that he's a guy, we think that line is a line, that could factor in for us here."

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